In 2016, the Metro Arts Commission published an equity statement that realigned its purpose and goals. The publicly funded agency, which organizes arts-related outreach programs in Nashville and provides granting support for large and small arts institutions, would involve every corner of the organization — such as grants, programming, hiring and competence training — to ensure that “ALL Nashvillians should be able to participate in a creative life; and that the arts drive a vibrant and equitable community.” Externally, the promises are bearing out through youth programs, micro-funding opportunities, education programs and neighborhood-specific initiatives. But according to former and current agency staffers, Metro Arts has built a reputation of racial equity that is not reflected in its internal dynamics.
In documents obtained by the Scene via public records requests, staff members describe the agency’s leadership style as “rely[ing] heavily on intimidation, fear and punishment” and fostering a “culture of individualism, competition and secrecy.” Some workers have sought to prove in records submitted to Metro that the current leadership has weaponized Metro’s performance improvement plans and evaluations when staffers call for accountability. Several accuse Metro Arts of paying lip service to the agency’s racial justice framework while tokenizing and exploiting the women of color on staff. To protect the anonymity of sources who fear retaliation, the Scene will not differentiate between current and former Metro Arts employees.
Staffers say the agency has relied on the expertise and community connections of its Black staff members to advance its equity goals while subjecting them to disproportionate scrutiny and attempting to silence their criticism of the agency. Cecilia Olusola Tribble was hired in July 2015 as the community arts coordinator, and her main role was to manage the applications and projects in the newly founded Thrive program. Thrive was created in 2014 to support artists excluded from the traditional granting process. By focusing on artists creating work that centers community through direct engagement, the agency has been able to empower hundreds of artists to create art for and with the public.
Tribble was also responsible for the agency’s arts program with court-involved youth, designing and facilitating learning cohorts about racial equity, leading interdepartmental and Metro-wide affinity groups, acting as co-chair in a national network of local arts agencies and arts government grantmakers, and co-chairing the March 2019 Racial Equity in Arts Leadership Symposium.
Meanwhile, Tribble was struggling to stay afloat. Records show that Tribble and her supervisor, Rebecca Kinslow, were constantly at odds, despite Kinslow praising Tribble for advancing the agency’s equity work. On Tribble’s May 2018 evaluation, Kinslow wrote: “It has been noted by our consultants at Crossroads [Antiracism Organizing and Training] that the antiracism work happening here [is] rippling out into the region and even nationally. … She serves as a thought leader for other programs that contribute to the agency’s broader equity work.”
A doctor’s note in Tribble’s personnel file reports that dust and mold in the agency’s office were contributing to her allergies and asthma. Another letter says that her “stressful work environment” was contributing to hypertension and anxiety.
In December 2018, Tribble was placed on a performance improvement plan for tardiness and “inconsistency in the quality of some job functions” related to technology and clerical work, and “the need for more frequent and consistent verbal and written communications.” A public records request did not return any more information about Tribble’s performance until June 10, 2019, when executive director Caroline Vincent, who is white, issued a notice of charges, including violating Metro Civil Services Rules about insubordination, absenteeism and written rules and policies. The letter informed Tribble that Vincent would conduct a hearing to determine if charges were valid on June 17.
Two staffers confirmed that there was “a campaign” to get colleagues to register formal complaints about Tribble. Another employee, public art project coordinator Atilio Murga, did make a complaint, writing that he felt “threatened” and “harassed” when Tribble invited him to a lunch she organized for people of color in the office. He noted that he originally discussed the incident with his manager, but later submitted it formally — when Tribble was facing charges. When asked if she ever requested or directed a manager to suggest that an employee make a formal complaint about Tribble, Vincent declined to comment.
Tribble submitted a lengthy response to those charges and provided more than 60 pages of printed Slack and text messages with Kinslow in which she communicated about tardiness and absences. Many of those cases involved off-site meetings with Metro Arts’ partners and stakeholders, doctors’ and therapy appointments, illness, child care and the hospitalization and death of family members. Most were met with approval and sympathy by Kinslow. Tribble also wrote that in the meeting to discuss the performance improvement plan, Vincent accused her of being angry, lacking professionalism and not wanting to be in the office. “In my experience and research,” Tribble wrote, “I identify the term ‘angry’ and phrases ‘lacks professionalism’ and ‘don’t want to be here’ as dog-whistle phrases, racial microaggressions and covert threats.”
She continued: “As an employee who clearly brings so much value to the organization, these charges, maltreatment, micromanagement, gaslighting, and suspicion are truly troubling and baffling.”
Tribble resigned on June 17, 2019, before the hearing could take place, and public records show that a settlement agreement was reached between the employee and Metro. The Scene obtained the original settlement agreement that was sent to Tribble, in which Metro sought to ban Tribble from working in any facet of Metro government “irrevocably and forever.” It also contained a nondisparagement clause that would disallow Tribble from disclosing “any negative opinions she may have concerning Metro Arts as it relates to her employment,” and specifically “as it relates to race equity.” Tribble negotiated via her attorney to have these terms removed.
Tribble’s personnel file reveals 10 letters written by partnering organizations and artists in support of Tribble in mid-June, including from Race Forward, Creative Justice Initiative and The Curb Center at Vanderbilt University. Another letter is addressed to Metro Human Resources and Metro Legal from former grants manager Laurel Fisher. Fisher, who is white, writes: “The treatment I received from Rebecca [Kinslow] was very different from how she treated Olusola [Tribble]. … During Olusola’s entire tenure at Metro Arts, Rebecca has looked over her shoulder, double checked her work, and questioned her motives at every turn.” Fisher also alleges in the letter that Tribble “was never able to use the work from home policy without being scrutinized.”
When asked for comment, Tribble responded to the Scene via email: “It was an honor and a blessing to serve Nashville through the work at Metro Arts. Unless Metro Arts does the necessary work internally and externally in the space of equity and justice, the agency cannot live into the fullest potential of its mission. However, with courageous leadership that centers antiracist policy and practice, Metro Arts has the possibility of dynamic excellence.”
“They’re just scared,” former Metro Arts staffer Lauren Fitzgerald tells the Scene. “They’re scared of people who show up and speak truth to power and push systems for equity.”
Fitzgerald, who acted as the agency’s neighborhood and artistic development coordinator, describes the time prior to Tribble’s resignation as “going in the bunker” — an expression used among staff. “Put your head down and work, and try not to draw attention so you’re not the next target,” says Fitzgerald, who is Black. “But you already know you’re gonna be the next target.”
During her three-and-a-half years at the agency, Fitzgerald’s role changed three times, as did her manager, while she managed regional art projects and youth programming and oversaw the Thrive program, working on upwards of 70 projects with artists. In December 2019, Fitzgerald was put on a performance improvement plan for failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a Thrive applicant, whose application did not enter the review process. She resigned three months later.
In her exit interview, Fitzgerald wrote that she was forced to resign, and described a workplace where it was “impossible to get a true sense of belonging” and where she “was on constant eggshells.”
Since 2018, three out of four of the staff members put on performance improvement plans were Black women. The fourth, Laurel Fisher, was cited for “insubordination” because she communicated with Vincent about ongoing issues with her immediate supervisor, Kinslow. As one staffer tells the Scene: “Have you rocked the boat? Then you were on a [performance improvement plan].”
“Metro Arts leverages staff relationships to get access to communities the organization serves,” says a staffer who asked to remain anonymous. “The staff of color know where their authority stops. They do the fieldwork, and then the authority comes in and takes the credit. That was the intention behind hiring a number of smart women of color in the office.”
In 2017, Metro Arts invited community members to form the Antiracism Transformation Team. This group consisted of two staff members and eight to 10 artists. It was established, according to the group’s 2019 report, to hold “the agency accountable in becoming fully antiracist in its identity and working for equity in all policies and practices with the goal of dismantling all systems of oppression within the arts ecosystem.”
In 2017-2018, the ARTT worked closely with the Chicago-based Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training group to conduct an environmental scan. The result was included in a 2019 report that noted: “People of color’s voices are used to advance an equity agenda, but they experience a lack of power in the hierarchical structure of the organization.” It also noted a discrepancy in salaries between white staffers and those of people of color, adding the caveat that, “Because Metro Arts had an all white full-time staff until 2014, white people have more longevity in their roles and therefore benefit from salary increases over a longer period of time.”
The Scene obtained an early draft of the environmental scan in which criticisms are more pointed. It states: “While the organization actively recruits and mentors people of color, particularly if their workstyle emulates normative values add [sic] they are perceived as those ‘who don’t make waves,’ there is little discussion of an analysis of power and oppression.” Further, it states that “there has been diversity, equity and antiracism training offered for staff, board, and partners, but some are uncomfortable naming racism.”
It also states that inside the agency, “Conflict [is] avoided at all cost — but when conflict arises, avoidance and emphasis on people getting along without accountability are the priorities.”
According to Fitzgerald, this draft was brought to Vincent in spring 2019. Fitzgerald says that in a private meeting, the director said that it should never be shared with the commission or public. Fitzgerald, who was not involved in conducting the scan, says that it “tells the truth about how people feel about the culture of the organization.”
“Metro Arts spent money to train the ARTT team to fulfill this civic duty,” says Fitzgerald, “and Metro Arts’ senior leadership strategically blocked it from being fully executed.”
Vincent declined to comment on any conversation she had with a staff member. Shortly after the 2019 report, ARTT was formalized as a standing committee — the Committee for Anti-Racism and Equity, which includes commissioners Will Cheek and Paula Roberts. Roberts, who is serving her third term on the Metro Arts Commission, tells the Scene that CARE is evidence of the commission’s and agency’s commitment to equity. Because it is a standing committee and not an ad hoc, she says: “This is not, for lack of a better word, a whitewashed situation. It’s up there with the things that the commission is known for in the community.”
Roberts would not speak to any specific personnel issues or members of the staff, but she says that an internal working group is creating accountability measures in the agency. “We may not be able to fix it for the folks that came before, but we can definitely make sure that the folks that come after have a voice.” When asked if Vincent is the right person to run Metro Arts, Roberts says: “If we didn’t have someone like Caroline, there probably wouldn’t be a CARE group at all. There would have been that report, and the report would have collected dust.”
In October 2020, Metro Arts conducted an employee survey. Though employees scored their experiences in the agency high in many areas, one response stands out as consistent with the ARTT report, documents the Scene obtained and interviews with staff: The majority of staff members do not feel comfortable voicing opinions in group meetings and communications.
Records show that these patterns continue with current staff. As part of the commission’s evaluation of the executive director, the managers in the agency have the option to submit comments to the commission’s chair. This year, strategic funding and initiatives manager Janine Christiano documented her concerns for the commission. The statement reads, in part: “Over the years, there have been multiple accounts made by staff of bias and unfair treatment by management that have been dismissed and hidden. … In these situations, management competence and responsibility are not deeply investigated while staff attempts to alert (i.e. whistle blowing) are labeled ‘insubordinate’ and punished with disciplinary action.” Christiano wrote that “the agency fails to operate within the restorative practices it promotes publicly in the community” and that “executive leadership exhibits difficulty transcending biases that favor personal relationship and racial affinity.” Christiano followed her criticism with a detailed account of two incidents in which she felt Vincent retaliated against her for voicing concerns about racial equity internally. Metro Arts Commission chair Jim Schmidt gave Vincent a score of 2.85 out of 3 on her 2021 evaluation, noting that Vincent’s goals for the upcoming year should be clarifying staff communication channels and “developing stronger mechanisms for feedback and respectful input from team.”
Christiano further documented her issues with Vincent in a reply to her 2021 evaluation. In the section scored for teamwork, Vincent wrote, “I would like to see Janine work to see the humanity in us all and extend grace when mistakes are made.” Christiano wrote that this is “particularly cruel and distorted. … I believe this statement by the supervisor demonstrates tone-policing, gas-lighting, a profound misunderstanding of critical feedback, and the supervisor’s own discomfort with self-reflection and accountability.”
Staff members tell the Scene that they did not document mistreatment through official channels because they did not trust finance and operations director Ian Myers, who acts as the agency’s human resources coordinator. In Fisher’s 2019 letter to Metro HR and Legal, she said that she “witnessed numerous instances during my time at Metro Arts where human resource concerns were handled inequitably.” Another staffer tells the Scene that Myers “feigns compassion, convinces you to have a casual conversation with him first, and then ultimately supports Caroline’s decision and facilitates using the Metro process for the agency. At the end of the process, the employee’s complaint is not officially documented, but Ian/Metro Arts has compiled their official documentation that supports the agency’s actions.” Myers declined to comment.
Vincent declines to comment on matters specific to personnel. Regarding the ARTT environmental scan, she says: “I think that we’re also a government agency and we have to sort of work within the systems that we live in. … We’re in a nonprofit space a lot because … we’re working with funders and foundations and people who have a little bit more latitude, so I think I can say it’s not been easy work, and I think we are in it every day, and the more work we do, the more we uncover and the more we learn. I don’t know that there should be a penalty for that, or a penalty for saying, ‘This is a tough truth we need to address, and what is the best way to address that?’ ”
Cedric Dent Jr. contributed reporting for this article.